The Kelowna Rockets welcomed a pair of key defensemen back into the lineup on Wednesday night.
But it wasn’t enough to defuse the B.C. Division’s only remaining undefeated team.
Yan Khomenko scored the game winner at 18:14 of the second period, as the Prince George Cougars edged the Rockets 2-1 Wednesday night in WHL action at Prospera Place, the first of three meetings in four nights between the division rivals.
The Cougars are now 4-0-0, while the Rockets slip to 1-2-0.
Blueliners Devante Stephens (Buffalo) and Braydyn Chizen (Minnesota) rejoined the club this week from NHL training camps and both suited up for their first game of the WHL season.
Chizen left the game in the third period after crashing into the boards and didn’t return.
Rockets head coach Jason Smith had few complaints with his club’s overall effort, but would have liked a more proactive approach in the offensive zone—particularly in the first half of the game.
“I don’t think we shot the puck and got to the net enough early on in the game, and spent a lot of time defending…it’s a lot harder work to defend than it is to play offense,” said Smith.
“I think generally we worked pretty hard, we made some mistakes but I think that’s part of growing as a team. Biggest thing is we talked about shooting the puck, having a man on the net and driving the net, we were a little slow and hesitant doing that but I think generally the work ethic was there.”
Jared Bethune put the Cougars on the board early, beating Michael Herringer at the 56-second mark of the opening period.
The Rockets evened the count with a shorthanded effort at 13:53 of the second period when Cal Foote set up Tomas Soutsal for his first goal of the season.
The Rockets pressed hard in the third, but couldn’t solve Cougars’ stopper Ty Edmonds who finished with a 32-save performance.
“We progressively got better, but the first period was a real wearing period on our team,” said Smith. “When you’re chasing the game, it’s hard.”
The Rockets are still awaiting the return of four players who, as of Wednesday, remained at NHL training camps—Nick Merkley (Arizona), Dillon Dube (Calgary), Lucas Johansen (Washington) and Calvin Thurkauf (Columbus).
As for Stephens, the 19-year-old defenseman was generally satisfied with his return to the team’s lineup.
“I felt good at some points, obviously still a little jet-lagged, but I think my feet will get going,” he said. “You know, I just need some time to get some chemistry with the boys, I haven’t been practicing with them very long, but that will come in time. We did some good things today, we just need to work on them.”
The Rockets and Cougars will meet again Friday and Saturday nights in Prince George.
Smith stressed the need for his team to be ready to go right out of the gate.
“Important that we come out and start the game the right way there, for sure,” he said. “They had momentum and built some confidence and that’s something we need to do going into Friday night’s game.
“We gotta go in and make it hard for them right from the start, make sure the compete level is there and the work ethic.”